How To Shoot HDR – And What Is It Anyway?

As you probably have already noticed, the internet makes an enormous fuss about HDR photography. The question one might want to ask is “Can I do that, too? If yes…how? And what the heck is it anyway?” There are many tutorials about the topic, and everyone has got his/her own ideas about the matter. So why would I write yet another tutorial about the beloved photo making technique?Well, because:
– Many of those tutorials cost money
– They are incomplete…
– …or just self-promoting, lacking content and not really helping anyone.
– Aren’t simple enough

Let’s start with an example right away.
You’re in a room and you’d like to take a picture of it. In that room is a window. If you take a picture then it will probably look like this:
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Your camera has now properly exposed to see everything outside the window, but the room is too dark.

The picture could also look like this:
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You camera has now properly exposed to see everything inside the room, but the window is too bright..

Of course it depends on what you want of that picture. You could prefer one or the other, depending on what should be on the image.

But let’s say that in this specific scenario you’d like to see both the room’s and the window’s content.

That’s when HDR comes in. HDR simply stands for High Dynamic Range. Your eye has a high dynamic ranee. It can see shadows (darker parts) and highlights (brighter parts) at the same time. A camera has a lower dynamic range. As long as the brightest part of the picture is not about 1000 times brighter than the darkest part, then everything’s fine (If your camera has that dynamic range, of course. You should try to google your camera’s dynamic range: in stops, or contrast ratio). A human eye can see over 20 stops of dynamic range whereas a Sony A7 has about 14.2 EVs (Exposure Value).
Our eyes can see a sky and the inside of a room as long as the outside of the window is not 1.000.000 brighter than the room. For a camera however, the outside content of the window is more than 1000 times brighter than the room. That is too bright.

And that is why, you cannot have both the room’s and the window’s outside content in one single picture. In this case, even in post processing, you cannot get the information back. Even when shot in RAW, the highlights are completely blown out. The information is just lost.

To extend the dynamic range you can take multiple pictures and layer them on top of one another. To rephrase: You can combine multiple SDR (LDR) images to create an HDR.
SDR: Standard Dynamic Range
LDR: Low Dynamic Range

Here are 4 cases on how to create HDR pictures:
Case 1 – Your camera has an inbuilt HDR mode. Example: Galaxy Note 2, iPhone 4S
1. Put your camera on a tripod or stabilize it on something else, like a chair, big speakers etc. This is an important part as you’ll have to have multiple pictures with the exact same composition.
2. Find the proper exposure. In this case I exposed so that I could see the room, but not outside the window. The room is about 65% of the picture whereas the window is the smaller part of it, being 35%.
3. Use the inbuilt HDR mode, shoot and you’re done. The results are often not as good as multiple processed pictures on a computer.

Case 2 – Your camera has an inbuilt HDR mode, but can also save the source images. Example: Canon 5D Mark III
1. Put your camera on a tripod or stabilize it on something else, like a chair, big speakers etc. This is an important part as you’ll have to have multiple pictures with the exact same composition.
2. Find the proper exposure. In this case I exposed so that I could see the room, but not outside the window. The room is about 65% of the picture whereas the window is the smaller part of it, being 35%.
3. Use the inbuilt HDR mode, shoot and you’re done. But now you can still take the source images and process them on a computer, resulting in a better outcome. See “Case 3” on how to do that.

Case 3 – Your camera has a bracketing mode and you can process the pictures on a computer. Example: Nikon D5200
1. Put your camera on a tripod or stabilize it on something else, like a chair, big speakers etc. This is an important part as you’ll have to have multiple pictures with the exact same composition.
2. Find the proper exposure. In this case I exposed so that I could see the room, but not outside the window. The room is about 65% of the picture whereas the window is the smaller part of it, being 35%. I used manual mode on this one, and exposed using the camera’s meter.
3. Go to your menu and look for AEB – Auto Exposure Bracketing and turn it on. (Please refer to your manual, which can be found on a pdf on the internet. You can search for words in PDFs, this makes them very efficient. To search in a document or even in your browser use Ctrl+F on Windows or Cmd+F on OSX).
4. Set the number of stops that you’d like to expose for. 1 stop means that your camera will make one 1 stop underexposed picture, one 1 stop overexposed picture and one in-between the two. In this case I set it to 3 stops. (3 EVs).
5. Take your pictures (3, 5, 7…it depends on your camera). Here I used 3 pictures, which is typically used. And, this is what most cameras have.
6. Copy the images to your computer and layer them using HDR software like: Luminance HDR, Photomatix, Photoshop.
7. Done.

Case 4 – Your camera does not have a bracketing mode but you can manually change the exposure and you can process the pictures on a computer. Example: Nikon D4200
1. Put your camera on a tripod or stabilize it on something else, like a chair, big speakers etc. This is an important part as you’ll have to have multiple pictures with the exact same composition.
2. Set your camera to manual mode.
3. Find the proper exposure. In this case I exposed so that I could see the room, but not outside the window. The room is about 65% of the picture whereas the window is the smaller part of it, being 35%. I used manual mode on this one, and exposed using the camera’s meter.
4. Take a picture.
5. Now turn the shutter speed 1 stop down (or 2, or 3) and take a picture. Turn the shutter speed back to where it was, then turn it 1 stop up (or 2, or 3…but the same amount as before) and take a picture.
6. Copy the images to your computer and layer them using HDR software like: Luminance HDR, Photomatix, Photoshop.
7. Done.

Here’s the final result. It is not a piece of art, nor has it any other interest, but you can clearly see the room and outside the window on the same image. Which was the purpose of this blog post:
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Tip: Shoot in RAW to get even more dynamic range per picture.

Here’s one more example on how HDR could be applied:
HDR Underexposed Normal Overexposed - Yannick Ciancanelli

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